Thursday, January 26, 2012

If Only It Weren't Newt

The first thing you have to know is that I’m a huge space cadet myself. Born in the dawning years of the Space Age, I was a starry-eyed 9 year old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, watching every second of the televised EVA, and then immediately watching every second of the replay. I remember my dad — a NASA engineer — bringing home vacuum-formed relief maps of the Apollo landing sites, on which we would trace out moonwalkers’ progress in mechanical pencil. So you should know that there’s nothing I’d rather see than the achievement of the visionary space goals Newt Gingrich laid out in Florida on Wednesday: A permanent presence on the moon, accelerated human missions to Mars, breakthrough interplanetary propulsion technology….

Nothing, that is, except a well-functioning, just, humane, and prosperous American society here on Earth, and that’s where I fall off Newt’s high-tech sled.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Newt’s interest in this area: As Mother Jones reminds us, Newt’s fascination with “grandiose”1 space ideas isn’t new: As early as 1984 he sponsored a bill that would have “offered a path to statehood for future space colonies,” and the first of his many books, Window of Opportunity, focused in part on space exploration as a key to building a Gingrich-approved future. And I don’t doubt that the goals he sets out are possible: Notwithstanding the quixotically negative comments from space advocates on blogs and news stories, there’s no doubt in my mind that, given the political will and national commitment we displayed during Kennedy’s moon quest, we could, in fact, plant an initial permanent lunar base by 2020: We haven’t gotten stupider since the days of Apollo, and now we have a half century of spaceflight-related technology that wasn’t available to engineers and program managers in 1961, when JFK established an 8 ½ year deadline for the first lunar landing by humans.

What we don’t have is a world in which humans on the moon or Mars is — or should be — anywhere near anyone’s first priority. At the philosophical level, I’ve never bought the “why spend money in space when we have problems here on Earth” line of opposition to space exploration: A great nation has to be able to do more than one thing at once, and the life of a whole society shouldn’t be reduced to nothing but problem solving. But I do believe in establishing reasonable priorities, and I believe that committing large chunks of our shared resources to a project requires the project to be somehow integrated with the nation’s larger priorities. In the 50s and 60s, our priorities were, for good or ill, focused on the geopolitics of superpower competition, and the Apollo effort neatly served that priority.

But today our top priorities should… indeed, must… be focused on building a ethically and economically just society, and on rebuilding our beleaguered middle- and working-class economy… and I’m pretty sure that’s not what Gingrich has in mind. It’s possible to imagine an Apollo-level space exploration program structured in ways that would be relevant to those goals, but the very things that would make it relevant — public investment in dual-use technologies, multipurpose infrastructure, related job creation, and public education at all levels — are anathema to today’s Republicans. Gingrich might be a technocrat, but he’s a Tea-Party technocrat.

And even if Gingrich’s space proposals struck me as perfect, the fact is that everything else he stands for, and that the party he would lead into Washington stands for, would be disastrous, from my point of view. I can’t hope for a bad president just because he might be good on my one pet issue. In my previous (online) life, I used to be a regular reader/contributor at several space policy forums, and I recall my fellow regulars discussing whether Bush or Kerry would be better for advocates of space exploration. I couldn’t believe it was even a question: With war, terrorism, fundamental tax policy, and basic questions of civil liberties in the balance, I couldn’t believe that anyone, on either side, would even think of basing their vote on space policy. Show me a candidate who proposes the same space goals as Gingrich has within the framework of a humane, truly progressive agenda, and I’ll instantly vote for that candidate… but odds are good I’d’ve been voting for the humane, truly progressive agenda in any case.

And so should you.

1 Since he styles himself as an intellectual, Gingrich should know that grandiose isn’t really a compliment. Many of Gingrich’s pronouncements may in fact be grandiose, in the sense of “affectedly grand or important; pompous,” and many of his plans may be grandiose, in the sense of “more complicated or elaborate than necessary; overblown,” but… ”You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” And don’t even get me started on people who say simplistic when they mean simple!

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